It’s On: Asia’s New Space Race

While NASA and the European Space Agency gets most of the world’s attention, China, Japan and India are racing for the heavens.

01.17.15 11:55 AM ET

The general public in the West largely views the exploration of space as dominated by the United States and perhaps Russia. Sometimes, as in the case of the Rosetta mission, they may give thought to Europe’s capabilities. Few people think of India when it comes to missions to Mars, but popular joy erupted across India in September 2014 after its Mangalyaan scientific spacecraft successfully achieved orbit around the red planet. One Indian reader responded to the story on a major online news outlet by posting: “It is [a] moment of pride as India becomes [the] 1st Asian nation to reach Mars.” And understood to all Indian readers was the point that China had—after a series of Asian firsts in space—finally been surpassed.

Since China’s first human spaceflight in 2003 and its threatening anti-satellite test in 2007, Asia has seen a surge in space activity, with budgets increasing rapidly across the region. While few officials admit to the term, a “space race” is emerging in Asia.

The surge of Asian countries joining the ranks of major space powers mirrors the rise of Asian economies and their militaries more generally since the end of the Cold War. But following the political drivers of these trends leads most often to regional rivalries, not a desire to compete with the United States or Russia. Being first in Asia to do anything in space brings prestige, lends credibility to governments in power, and helps stimulate Asia’s young population to study science and technology, which has other benefits for their national economies.

The responses to China’s rise have included the sudden development of military space programs by two countries that previously shunned such activities—Japan and India—and dynamic new activities in countries ranging from Australia to Singapore to Vietnam. On the Korean Peninsula, both North and South have orbited satellites in the past three years and both have pledged to develop much larger rockets. Many of these countries realize that they can’t “win” Asia’s space race, but they also know that they cannot afford to lose.

China’s rapid expansion in space activity has also raised serious concerns within U.S. military circles and in NASA. But these developments pose an existential threat to China’s neighbors, some of whom see Beijing’s space program as yet another threatening dimension to their deep-seated historical, economic, and geo-political rivalries for status and influence within the Asian pecking order. Even more, space achievements affect the self-perceptions of their national populations, challenging their governments to do more.

How this competition will play out and whether it can be managed, or channeled into more positive directions, will have a major impact on the future of international relations in space. The U.S. government has thus far responded with a two-track strategy, seeking a bilateral space security dialogue with Beijing, while quietly expanding space partnerships with U.S. friends and allies in the region, adding a space dimension to the U.S. “pivot” to Asia.


Although shocking to some, China’s space efforts have actually been long in coming. Beijing has gradually built up a range of scientific, commercial, and military space capabilities since the 1980s that have now put it in a position to compete favorably with any country in Asia—even technologically advanced Japan—while presenting an asymmetric threat to the United States. Over the past decade China has launched a spacecraft that mapped the Moon (Chang’e 1), conducted a lunar rover mission (Chang’e 2), and orbited and visited a small space station (Tiangong 1), with plans for a much larger station within a decade. It is building a new launch site on Hainan Island with plans for a heavy-left booster.

In the military realm, the People’s Liberation Army has demonstrated the capability of putting critical U.S. space assets at risk in a crisis, forcing Washington to think twice about the surety of its space-enhanced military capabilities. The sheer size of China’s young scientific and engineering cadre, its steadily expanding satellite network (including a newly operational commercial and military GPS system called Beidou), its increasing space budget, and its investment in military counter-space technologies—with recent tests of possible offensive systems in 2010, 2013, and 2014—presage a broad and formidable set of capabilities. Experts are divided over whether China has set itself on a course for space dominance or not. Its policies are likely to be influenced—for better or for worse—by its economic status and its evolving relationship with the United States. But Asian countries are not taking the threat lying down.

Unlike in Europe, where all of the major powers (except Russia) are members of the European Space Agency and share a cooperative approach to space (including highly integrated cost sharing), Asia’s space arrangements are highly nationalistic, sometimes secretive, and mostly competitive. There are no space security talks currently ongoing among the major powers, no history of arms control talks linking space and nuclear deterrence (unlike in the U.S.-Soviet case), and no civil space cooperation in its key political dyads: China-Japan, India-China, and North-South Korea.

At the regional level, China and Japan have sponsored rival space organizations in an effort to “organize” smaller countries in this broader competition and draw them to their side. China has formed an ESA-like body called the Asia Pacific Space Cooperation Organization (APSCO), which now includes Bangladesh, Thailand, and Mongolia among its dues-paying members. APSCO benefits include access to Chinese space training, ground stations, and satellite development projects. Others in the region have opted to participate in the less formal, Japanese-led Asia Pacific Regional Space Agency Forum, maintaining greater flexibility.


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At the domestic level, Japan, long Asia’s technological leader, has also reacted with a range of new activities. In 2008, the Japanese Diet pushed through revolutionary legislation that ended Japan’s previous ban on military activities in space. Despite the high costs of recovery after the 2011 earthquake, tsunami, and Fukushima nuclear disaster, Tokyo has doubled down on its space efforts with a new launcher and renewed efforts in high-prestige space science and human spaceflight, including an active program of research on its Kibo module on the International Space Station (ISS). Japan’s H-II Transfer Vehicle spacecraft now provides the only non-U.S. and non-Russian service module able to ferry supplies to the ISS.

In December 2014, the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency launched the ambitious Hayabusa 2 mission, which aims to put four landers on an asteroid by 2018 and then return soil samples to Earth. Japanese officials see an intimate connection between their space accomplishments and the ability of its economy to export advanced technologies. They fear that China’s space accomplishments might put Japan’s technological reputation into doubt. Therefore, they believe they cannot fall behind their rapidly advancing neighbor.


India’s response to China has taken two major directions. It has abandoned its prior sole focus on space applications aimed at India’s population (via telemedicine, Earth observation, and coastal management programs) and adopted a dramatic upgrading of its space science program to rally domestic support and gain international attention. Beyond its Mars mission, this has included the lunar orbiter Chandrayaan 1 in 2008-09, a planned Chandrayaan 2 rover mission, and designs for an eventual independent human spaceflight program.

The second major Indian initiative has been in the military sector, where New Delhi quickly responded to China’s 2007 anti-satellite test by creating the Integrated Space Cell aimed at handing operational control of selected observation and communications satellites to each of its military branches. It also announced a program to match Beijing’s counter-space capabilities with its own anti-satellite weapon. Accordingly, India’s space budget has recently increased by double-digit percentages, but whether these increases are sustainable remains to be seen.

Everyone Else

Although less directly involved in the emerging race among Asia’s major powers, a range of other Asian countries have felt the need to show their mettle via enhanced space activity. After two failed tries, North Korea successfully launched a primitive satellite from its Unha 3 rocket in December 2012. South Korea, which has made major investments into space-launch capability and satellite manufacturing, responded with a launch of a more sophisticated satellite in January 2013, albeit with a Russian first stage. Earlier, South Korea had contracted with Russia to launch the first Korean astronaut—a female biochemist, Yi So-yeon—to the ISS in 2008. Under President Park Geun-hye, the South has announced accelerated plans for a larger launcher and a lunar research mission in the 2020 time frame.

Although isolated by geography from some of these pressures, Australia rolled out a more activist and organized space policy in 2013, aiming at providing nation-wide broadband service while engaging the U.S. military in new cooperative agreements in space situational awareness: or the tracking of harmful orbital debris and spacecraft with the aim of preventing collisions. These efforts build on investments in military communications in cooperation with the U.S. Wideband Global Satcom constellation, in which Australia has made unprecedented investments in order to support its forces overseas.

Vietnam is a surprising entry into Asia’s space community, but one with strategy in mind. Its distrust of its northern neighbor China has helped convince it to adopt an unlikely partnership with Japan, which has provided $1 billion of support toward construction of a national space center and the purchase of two Japanese Earth observation satellites, whose data may be shared by the two countries.

Among others, Singapore has made major investments in satellite manufacturing, communications, and Earth observations, likely with the aim of bolstering its commercial independence and strengthening its military awareness of regional threats. Malaysia struck a deal with Russia to launch its first astronaut to the ISS in 2008, while investing in science education and satellite development. Indonesia, meanwhile, has plans for an equatorial launch complex, giving it easier access to fixed, geostationary orbital locations above the equator, which are ideal for communications satellites. While it is unlikely to fulfill its space ambitions soon, the fact that it has felt pressed to participate shows the strength of pressures in the region to enunciate a “space plan.”

Looking Ahead

For the United States, Asia’s space race poses both challenges and opportunities. China’s counter-space efforts and forging of generous deals with less-developed space actors represent both military and civil space challenges. But the growing investment in space capabilities among U.S. friends and allies create new opportunities for cooperation. Through burden-sharing on the Wideband Global Satcom system and new collaboration with Australia and Japan, the U.S. military is hoping to reduce the vulnerability of its space assets and create new, networked capabilities that will be more resilient.

The future of Asia’s space race matters to both the region and the world. In the end, greater capabilities throughout the region could yield a more integrated community through improved communications and cooperation in disaster-warning and crisis management. But the recent linkages between space and hostile forms of military nationalism could get out of hand absent region-wide talks to defuse tensions and identify common threats in space, such as harmful orbital debris.

The recent signature between Chinese President Xi Jingping and India Prime Minister Narendra Modi of a pledge to explore cooperation in space is a good sign. Whether this initiative can overcome decades of mistrust and help lead the region out of its current hostility is a work in progress. In this regard, the future of the U.S.-Chinese relationship in space will likely matter. The two sides currently have no space science cooperation (after a freeze on funding by the U.S. Congress). But some space talks continue at the military and political levels. Whether the remaining summits between Presidents Barack Obama and Xi Jinping can solve these problems and move space activity into a more collaborative direction remains to be seen.

In Andy Weir’s best-selling novel The Martian, it takes a civil space disaster to forge U.S.-Chinese cooperation in orbit. With some greater effort, perhaps real-life leaders can accomplish a collaborative outcome before such an accident occurs.

James Clay Moltz is the author, most recently, of Crowded Orbits: Conflict and Cooperation in Space (Columbia University Press, 2014). His writing on space developments has also appeared in such journals as Current History and Nature, as well as in the Boston Globe, the New York Times, and the San Francisco Chronicle.